Police commissioner howard safir has earned his place in the mayor's inner circle by not upstaging his boss -- unlike his flashy predecessor, William Bratton -- and by grouchily fending off the media. But lately, that second trick has generated more ill will than ever on both sides: His deputy for operations, Edward Norris, drew gasps this fall when he told the Times that the press was to blame for the rising murder rate. Then Safir's spokesperson, Marilyn Mode, was accused of trying to stonewall an unflattering Daily News piece about the police crime lab. The Post's Jack Newfield capped off the year by calling Safir "the only public figure who has made more gaffes this year than Hillary Clinton and Al Gore." Something had to be done.
Which might explain this month's unexpected transfer of Mode's top underling, inspector Mike Collins, from the NYPD press office to the detectives' bureau. The move happened on December 3, the day after the office Christmas party. So far, only Newsday police columnist Leonard Levitt has come out and called Collins a scapegoat -- but now Mode, in turn, accuses Levitt of having a vendetta against her and her boss. At times, it does seem no scandal is too small for Levitt: He recently exposed Mode's dog for eating employees' lunches. Still, observers say the scapegoating rap could stick. "Lenny's like Oz -- he knows all," says Tom Kelly, the MTA spokesperson, who had Mode's job for a year. "They used to say that Lenny doesn't hate anybody -- he hates everybody. My experience always was that he was fair."
Tell that to Mode, who now calls the Collins move a promotion, and whose non-denial denials -- "Why don't you be a newspaper reporter and report news?" -- have become legendary. "She's so stupid, she once came up to me and said, 'Lenny, you were as tough on Bill Bratton as you are on Howard. You're just a twisted person,' " Levitt says. "She doesn't quite get it. You mean I'm responsible for Collins's being transferred? Maybe I'm responsible for the higher murder rate too."